How to Help Teens Live Life on Purpose

Ask Kendall Cotton Bronk how she became interested in studying the science of purpose, and you’ll get an answer you might not expect. She didn’t exactly fall into the field by accident, but it wasn’t exactly on purpose, either. And it took the near-death of her then-28-year-old husband to confirm—in a strange, unexpected way—her calling.

Bronk is an associate professor of psychology in the Division of Behavioral & Social Sciences at Claremont Graduate University. She is particularly interested in understanding and supporting the positive development and moral growth of young people. She is the principal investigator of the Adolescent Moral Development Lab, and the author of Purpose in Life: A Critical Component of Optimal Youth Development.

We recently chatted with Bronk about how she got into this field of study, and why she’s particularly interested in helping teenagers find purpose in life.

ORBITER: How did you get into your field?

Kendall Cotton Bronk: When I graduated from college (BS in Communication Studies, Northwestern University), I went into management consulting. I was working in mergers and acquisitions, so I was supposed to be interested in issues like growth and process. But I was most interested in how business people made decisions on what was right and wrong. Often there weren’t laws about what you could and couldn’t do, but some things were clearly wrong—and you didn’t need a law to tell you that. I was fascinated by this idea of moral development.

Kendall Cotton Bronk

When it came time to think about grad school, I wanted to study moral development with Bill Damon at Stanford. He’s one of the leading scholars in that field, and I had read all his books. But the night I found out I had been accepted to grad school, my husband collapsed. He was 28, I was 26, and we’d just been married six months. He had a heart condition, and he needed a heart transplant. He got a heart, but it could’ve gone either way. When we left the hospital, his doctor said, “You’re living on borrowed time. Take your medicine, live your life, do something good and make it count.”

It’s one of those things that sticks with you! It made us step back and wonder, What are we going to do? So when I started grad school, to study purpose in life, I had a unique perspective. I thought, Wow, this couldn’t be a coincidence. I feel like this is what I’m meant to study. When you have a life-threatening illness, it’s a natural time to think about purpose, meaning, and making your time count.

How is your husband today?

Bronk: Fantastic, thank you. It’s been 17 years and he’s done incredibly well. We’re very grateful and I still enjoy studying purpose. Do I get points for the dramatic story? (laughs)

You should! That’s an amazing story. You study moral development in adolescents. Looking back, were you a teenager who had purpose?

No, and I have nothing but compassion for adolescents who don’t know what they want to do yet. I certainly didn’t. I was searching, but I didn’t have purpose. I definitely did not have the answer, so I’m blown away by adolescents who do.

Your research reveals that only one in five high school kids have a clear purpose, but that seems pretty good to me.

You’re right. But it’s important to note that even if you have a purpose in high school, your purpose grows and changes along with you—but not 180 degrees. I’m thinking of one kid who was passionate about gun control, because there had been some shootings in his neighborhood. When he went to college, he got interested in issues of national security. He said, “They’re just bigger guns.” Later, he became active on this topic as a journalist. So you see how his purpose “morphed” over time—from an issue of gun control, to national security, to sharing the security news of the day.

I think adolescents who have purpose are sort of remarkable, but we should expect their purposes to continue growing along with them.

How would you define “purpose” for a teenager? Is it specific with details, or more vague and general?

Some young people have a really clear plan, and others have more of a general framework they’re trying to fill in. As long as you can identify a meaningful direction and how it will allow you to make a difference, we call that “purpose.” If you say, “I just want to make a difference, but I have no idea how,” you’re probably searching for your purpose. But if you say, “I want to make a difference and I know I’m really good at teaching people, so it will somehow involve education,” that would indicate purpose, but with more specificity.

What matters is that it’s about something you really value. Once you can identify that, you have purpose, whether or not you know exactly how you’re going to enact it.

Are there are differences in generations? Were our parents more purposeful than we are? And their parents more purposeful than that? Or vice versa?

Another good question for more study! Every generation has had individuals with purpose and individuals without purpose. We didn’t have the same ways of measuring it, so it would be pretty challenging to compare. My sense is that it’s a little harder to find purpose these days, because there are a lot more options for young people, including many jobs that didn’t even exist when we were their age. But it’s a double-edged sword: So many options can feel overwhelming.

Think about the Greatest Generation. With Word War II, there was sort of built-in purpose; everyone had a common purpose. We don’t really have that today, for better and for worse. You don’t have to go in a particular direction because we’re at war. But at the same time, it’s challenging because it’s not ready-made. Historically, you graduated from high school, got a job, had a family, that was it. There weren’t so many options, but it made your purpose easier to find.

Today, many adolescents lack critical thinking skills that previous generations had. The pace of society, social media, instant gratification—nobody takes time to pause and reflect. Is that affecting their ability to figure out their purpose?

I think so. You need to take time to be reflective, and I don’t think kids do much of that these days. When we interview kids about finding purpose, they’re always like, “Wow, nobody has asked me these questions before. I’ve never thought about this before.” As parents, we tend to ask, “Did you study for Friday’s physics test” or “Are you going to play a sport this season?” We only focus on the short term.

We rarely ask, “What do you really want out of your life?” We don’t typically have these conversations with our kids. Yet the reality is kids want to think about these things. They say, “This is the stuff I want to think about and talk about, but nobody asks me about it.”

That’s a little bit indicting for us parents, isn’t it?

Yes. We need to be asking these questions, to allow our kids room to let their minds wander. In neuroscience, they call it the “default mode.” New research indicates that “mind-wandering time” is very important. We don’t have any of that built into our educational system. And when our kids get home from school, they’re so scheduled that they don’t have time to mind-wander. That time is critical to purpose development. That’s why we’ve created some tools to help foster purpose.

You’re associated with The Purpose Challenge and the Fostering Purpose Project. What’s the difference between these websites?

There’s a story behind both. We’re trying to be more intentional about fostering purpose, so we were doing surveys and interviews. Students would call us back and ask for the tapes from their interviews, saying, “I loved what I said, and I realize I hadn’t thought about it much before, so I want to keep track of it.” We started to think, Gosh, these surveys and interviews could be an intervention in and of itself.

When we did further research, those who had participated in the first round had significantly higher rates of purpose than those who hadn’t participated in the first round. So we created some tool kits that basically take those interviews and translate it into an online experience and activity. That’s our purpose toolkit.

Meanwhile, the Greater Good Science Center at Cal-Berkeley contacted me about this research. They wanted to create a contest where young people would complete some activities about fostering purpose and write an essay for a chance to win a college scholarship. That’s the purpose challenge.

Through all that, we’ve learned that you can foster purpose through gratitude.

A young person might say she wanted to be a teacher who really impacts her students. She’d say things like, “When I was 16, my parents got divorced, and I was really depressed. But this one teacher really stepped forward, and I was so grateful for her support and encouragement, I want to be that kind of teacher for somebody else.” We heard that kind of story often, so we’ve also created an online toolkit that fosters gratitude.

Finally, we have other materials online for teachers, educators, and students, anybody who wants to use them. They’ve been tested thoroughly, so they really work. So I hope people will use them!

So, is our future in good hands with today’s teens?

I am very inspired by them. They do want to make a difference, to have an impact, to leave their mark. We need to help them think about how they can best do this. We have a lot of very real problems that we need to address, but I think we have some very promising young people too, with oodles of opportunities. They’re our resources. We need their skill, their talents, their good works. I’m pretty hopeful!

Watch Kendall Cotton Bronk talk about helping young people find purpose:

(Image of teens: William Perugini | Shutterstock)
Managing Editor, ORBITER magazine